What Happened to the Ballerina

What happened to the Ballerina, the Chinamen and the Tumblers. That was the original title to a ballet by the Russian choreographer Boris Georgevich Romanov (1891-1957), an “ultra-modernist” who experienced brushes with fame (he danced at the Marinsky Theater and maintained association with Serge Diaghilev for a time), but ultimately created a series of works that were consistently poorly received. It seems that in an attempt to finally make it to the big time, he commissioned Sergei Prokofiev, with whom he was acquainted via mutual friends, to write music for his re-working of What happened to the Ballerina, the Chinamen and the Tumblers into a new ballet, which he titled Trapèze.

At first, Prokofiev found satisfaction in working on the score, which from the start he intended as both ballet music and concert music writing, “We rise at 7:00 (or rather we start moving at 7:00), have coffee at 8:00 and at 8:30 I set to work at the ballet for Romanov; I finally decided to write it for five instruments as a ballet and at the same time as a concert Quintet.” This, of course, was not unusual. Prokofiev often transferred his music for the ballet into concert works—his Romeo and Juliet and Scythian Suites are prime examples. What makes this Quintet a curiosity is the fact that it is only an echo of the original. The working relationship between Romanov and Prokofiev rather quickly soured, with Romanov insulting Prokofiev by asking for revisions (an example of their mutual animosity is on display when Romanov writes “I’m asking you to authorise me to curtail this variation or rather to start the variation towards the end, not from the beginning – that is to remove 27 bars,” to which Prokofiev responds, “Make yourself at home with my innards’ said a patient to his surgeon, when he was lying on the operating table. I feel like saying the same thing about your blood-thirsty intention.”). New sections were added, and finally the work was ready for its premiere, which took place in a tiny German town and not in a major city center as Romanov had hoped and indicated. Prokofiev, who once intended to be in attendance, was elsewhere.

When it was all said and done, the ballet was broadly panned, and Prokofiev’s original score to the ballet remains lost. Listening to the music, now separated back to a quintet (with the new sections Romanov demanded blended into another work, the Divertimento op. 43), one can at least attempt to imagine the ropes and tumbling of Trapèze within its sounds.

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From the program notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

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